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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Vision for KDE4

KDE4 is an ambitious project. It's propably the most ambitious thing KDE-team has ever embarked upon. There is a vision in the minds of the developers. It's still somewhat vague, and it's far in the horizon, but it's there. And now is the right time to discuss what that vision could be in reality. When the system is being built, it's too late to discuss how it should be done.

The Desktop for The Future

Like Aaron Seigo said: KDE4 should be the foundation upon which the future of KDE will be built. KDE4 needs to be more than "same stuff, only prettier". While move from KDE1 to KDE2 and from KDE2 to KDE3 were quite big, the idea of the desktop stayed the same. And it has been the same ever since the idea of "the desktop" was born, first at PARC, and later made popular by Apple. Since then, the desktop has been practically unchanged.

Some might say that the desktop does not need to change. But it does. The world of computing has moved at a trendemous pace, yet the interface through which we use the system has remained relatively static. We still use separate application to carry out our work, we are still confined to relatively small area on the screen.

Content is the key

Fact is that people don't want to use applications. People don't launch Konqueror and say "Yes, I can use Konqueror again!". What they might say is "Yes, I can read Slashdot again!". What people want to do is to work and use the content, they do not want to use the apps. Apps are merely the necessary evil in accessing the content.

I touched this idea on "The Desktop is The Application", and I stand by it. Of course, we can't eliminate apps altogether. But we should try to minimize their importance. There are lots of things the user could do, without having to actually use a full-blown application. In "The Desktop is The Application", I suggested a simple plasmoid that resides on users desktop that allows the user to do many simple thing quickly and intuitively. Instead of using an email-client to write and send a mail, the user could simply write the mail and send it, without having to use a specific app to do it. Instead of launching a text-editor to write text, the user could simply write the text, and be done with it.

Make it simple and easy for the user to access, create and use content. The content is the key. The applications are merely a necessary evil. Instead of saying things like "KDE has some kick-ass applications!", we should try to move towards "KDE allows you to do your stuff with minimium of fuzz!".

First Impressions

Currently KDE suffers from some simple yet annoying problems. And the sad thing is that these problems would be very easy to fix. Yet, they are still there, in KDE3.4.2. KDE doesn't deliver a good first impression to the user.

I'm talking about simple things like sizes of windows for example. I remember when I compressed some files in Konqueror. KDE popped a dialog-box on the screen which said on the titlebar "Compressing". Well, that is what it was SUPPOSED to say. Instead it said "Compre...". Why is that? It was because the default size of the window was too smaal to display the titlebar. And I had NOT changed the default-settings that's the way it was out of the box. Of course I could fix it by adjusting the size of the window, but the point is that the user should not be expected to fix trivial things like that! It gives a very bad first impression. Things should be optimal right from the start.

The same problem can be seen in configuration-options as well. Quite often the option-window displays so much information that the default size of the window is too small to show all the information. And that means that the user either has to increase the size of the window, or scroll around with scrollbars. Unacceptable.

Progress-dialogs in KDE are propably the worst offender on this area. Just about every time I download something, the progress-window is insanely wide, and I have to scroll around it to see all the information it displays. My screen has a resolution of 1280x1024, so this is not a question of low resolution. It's simply a question of design-oversights that simply should not be there.

If little things like these are problems, the user will get a very bad first impression of the system. And since these are little things, yet easy to fix, but still unfixed, many things will start to wonder that if these kinds of things are not fixed, what problems are hidden in the "big things"?

KDE should aim for perfection. And while true perfection is practically impossible to reach, it should still be the goal which KDE tries to reach. And perfection is composed of lots and lots of "little things".

Peace on The Desktop

This is closely related to first impressions: KDE should look welcoming and peaceful. Bright colors and "Look at me! Look at me!" UI is distracting. the just previewed Oxygen icon-theme for KDE4 is a big step in right direction. It doesn't look boring (like icons in GNOME do), yet it looks understated.

And related to this, is the clutter (again). The more clutter there is, the more confused the user will be. And that is the wrong first impression we want to give to people. If the first thing user has to do is to clean up the UI, we are definitely heading in the wrong direction. In short: the UI should look serene, with minimium amount of distracting UI-elements. Make it easy on the eyes.

KDE should highlight the things that are important. Currently KDE highlights everything, and the end-result is a mess. By having less stuff visible, the stuff that is visible gets more attention. So remove all the fluff, and only show handful of things by default. And those things that are visible should be the things that really matter.

KDE should aim for the serenity of the mind and serenity of the user interface. And this should start right from the login-manager and splash-screen. What happens when user logs in to KDE? Well, we get the splash-screen with flashing icons and text explaining what's happening. Only thing missing is the klaxon wailing in the background. Instead of all that, why not simply fade to black when the user logs in. Instead of flashing icons, we would simply have black screen with white text in the middle saying "Starting up KDE...". The "..." could appear one by one to tell the user that the system is working. After the desktop has been loaded, the "splash-screen" would fade in to the users desktop, which is ready to be used.

This sort of behavior would reinforce the feeling that the login-manager is a portal to the system. As the login-manager fades out, and the desktop eventually fades in to view, it reinforces the feeling of moving from one system to the other. And it does that while being very un-obtrusive and peaceful. And maybe we can shave few fractions of a second from the startup, when we don't have to load a complex splash-screen ;)?

Rethinking the desktop

Like I said, the desktop has been unchanged for over two decades now. Instead of re-implementing the desktop in identical way it has been done before, we should really ask ourselves "how could this be done better?". What follows is collection of ideas I have seen (and I have been involved in most of them in one way or the other, mostly by providing feedback). Note: I'm not suggesting that KDE4 should be done like this. Rather, I offer these as a food for thought.

Recently on, I have been involved in a discussion about an interesting proposal for the desktop. Instead of having a desktop, what about having a strip? Instead of being confied to single desktop of certain size, what if the desktop scrolled left and right? On the bottom of the screen would be a navigation-strip, helping the user to navigate the strip.

Do we really need the titlebar in windows? Seriously? That said, do we really need the current menu's in menubar? And what about REALLY using the screen-corners?

There are lots of ideas floating around. And they deserve a good discussion. And besides having ideas like these, there should be work done in combining them in to a one coherent whole.


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